The Bookshelf: Poet Jennifer Militello
The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features poet Jennifer Militello. New Hampshire poet Jennifer Militello’s new collection of poems, A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments, collects poems that she’s written over eight years. With precise and surprising language, Militello takes us through life and death, feelings of isolation and resignation, and questions of identity and faith, to name a few. She’s the author of two previous collections of poetry and a chapbook, and her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and many other publications. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Militello's bookshelf, listen to her conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.
Jennifer Militello's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. The Storm House by Tim Liardet. "This is a book about grieving over the death of a brother, but it's also a lyric masterpiece. You will never see dogs or rain or cat food the same way again."
2. Fragment of the Head of a Queen by Cate Marvin. "Cate Marvin's voice is a harsh wonder. It's metallic as it glitters in the air, but soft as want on impact. She shuffles up emotion and lets it all fly at her reader, making music through an inner discord."
3. Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep. "I love the raw heart of this book, the layers smoothed beneath the statement-questions. The way it reads as one furious spilling and singing, great and dark and strange, like so much of Waldrep's work."
4. The poetry of Emily Dickinson. "Because, well, Dickinson. Her poems are the real beneath the fake. They are the inner before the exoskeletons we place on top. Anyone who reads them with an open heart--i.e., without all the stress of 'understanding' or not--will feel hit with them, and less alone."
5. Selected Verse by Federico Garcia Lorca. "Lorca will show you what you thought you'd seen and shake up what you think you think. He is incongruous in his leaps, and everyone needs more incongruity, since context makes the world what it is."
One of the challenges of talking about a collection of poetry like this is that it contains multitudes. There’s so much to say about each one of these—how did you go about putting this collection together and making it work as a whole?
A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments is a book about identity. It’s a book that examines the ways that we adopt false identities as a way to protect ourselves against a world that often feels threatening or beyond our control. So I guess in using all these different voices, I was trying to create a speaker who uses her own voice in certain letters that happen between these persona poems but also to create a sort of fluctuation of identity or an adoption of identity, to allow us all to think about the ways that we use identity as a form of protection.
As a form of protection?
What do you mean by that?
I think when we move through the world, we often make use of different masks with different people and in different situations. And so that’s kind of in a smaller sense our personal ways of making use of identity as a form of protection. This particular speaker, there’s a more extreme situation where she writes these letters where it’s obvious there’s a certain sense of struggle or illness, and she adopts the voices of classical composers and mythological figures as a way of making sense of her world.
When you speak about identity, I was thinking of the poem called “A Dictionary with Foresight as 20/20.” And the first stanza: “Dressed with a self that cannot last, I break / the bread of the moment.” And it goes on to talk about being super-aware of who I am right now is not who I’m going to be in the future, and it’s just a fascinating look at who we will become and who we are right now.
Yeah, and there’s a reason that’s one of the earliest poems in the book. It does seek to introduce that aspect of an identity that shifts and changes.
Throughout this book you use a variety of forms of repetition. There area lot of poems that start, “A Dictionary of…” What draws you to the technique of repetition as a way of getting your idea across?
So I love repetition for its songlike qualities. One of the things I very much believe in is reading a poem with the instinct instead of the intellect. I believe in reading with our ear and with our hearts, in a way, instead of with our minds, or as much as with our minds. And I think repetition creates a music and creates a sort of song that we respond to on a level…I always compare the way I think of poems to some degree to songs I hear on the radio, right? So we have the linguistic message, but it’s reinforced by the more emotionally immediate music. And poems are the same way. The language is meant to create a music that allows us to emotionally respond. And if I think about my influences, people like Federico Garcia Lorca, you know, he’s a poet who really uses that movement through language and music and repetition to create that emotional immediacy.
I’m glad you mentioned that, because I found myself at first wondering where the logic was, and I only began to appreciate these poems when I learned that the images were a little more associative.
I don’t want to say they were tricking me, but they were on a subconscious level bringing me to an emotion, without saying, “There’s an emotion. Go feel it.”
Exactly. And that’s the goal of my poems. I don’t necessarily want people to be able to say, “This poem means…” or “This poem is about…” I want it to instinctively feel right. Archibald Macleish said, “A poem should not mean but be.” I believe in the experience of the poem as a whole that we take as an experience.
More of a question than an answer.
Tell us a little bit about your background as a poet. When did you discover that you were a poet?
I was either fortunate or unfortunate to figure out that I was a poet really early on. I was probably about nine or ten years old and at my grandmother’s house—my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn. And I was doing what kids often do on holidays, being very bored while the adults had coffee. So I ended up in the back room of the apartment where there were exactly two books: Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe, sort of the collected poems. And I was an avid reader already and I loved words, but I hadn’t had a lot of experience with poetry, and I found myself in this back room picking up (especially) Emily Dickinson’s poems and reading them and understanding immediately that this was something I hadn’t ever experienced before and that emotional immediacy was one of the things that I saw here.
At that point, I was so moved and changed by this experience. I was like…I imagine myself reading these poems aloud to herself. Such a strange image. But I was reading them and I continued to go to that back room for visits and sort of re-experience these books. And I thought: this has done this to me, this has made me realize my emotional reality and a sort of shared emotional experience that I hadn’t experienced before. I felt like Dickinson knew me and my experience in a way that no one had. I thought if I can do this, if I can give this experience to others, and also if I can express this experience in this way, that’s an incredible thing. So at nine or ten I started writing of course really bad poems.
Imitations of Emily Dickinson? With the dashes?
I wasn’t using dashes, but I was definitely using nature imagery and probably about the same line length. I was thinking about music. I was rhyming. And so from there I was just addicted to poems and I worked really hard to not be a poet. At one point, I applied to law school and I got in and thought, “I’m going to be a lawyer, like a normal person.” But it wasn’t meant to be. I’ve always returned to poems.
And do you return to Emily Dickinson from time to time?
Oh, absolutely. She continues to be one of the most incredible challenging influences. I mean, I can’t think of a poet who uses word choice in such an incredibly precise and exactly right way as Dickinson.
But Poe didn’t seem to capture your attention or your love as much?
Oh, I loved Poe at the time. I remember reading “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” But Dickinson was different. I think the connection to nature was something I already felt and also the emotional complexity underneath the words, the fact that they were a surface like a lake’s surface, and I knew there were all of those unsaid things underneath. And that to me was what was really interesting.
What’s it like being a poet nowadays and having to pitch yourself all the time? Is it a slog? What’s it like, being a poet?
I think it’s really important to keep that pitching, as you call it, separate from the writing, and to remember why you write. So I’m now a poet who has you know three books and I’m published in literary journals and there is a sense that I have to be out there, you know, promoting myself and my poems. But it’s important for me to remember that that’s not what poems are about for me. That poems are very much about my internal experience and my connection to the world. So I sort of let the left hand do things without the right hand knowing so I send poems out and I do many readings all over the country. I’m about to go on this crazy traveling adventure for this book and I do all of those things. I have this public persona—this is kind of in keeping with the book, actually.
Yeah, so I have sort of thought about that as a separate identity from the me I am when I’m at my desk, which is a very private me, working really hard to find those words that say, in the best way, the things that I want to say, and leave those things unsaid that should just resonate.
Is there a certain identity that—I mean, you say that the you at your desk writing and the you here in the studio…is there an identity that’s better for the market at selling poetry? Is that something you have to do, just create this new, marketable Jennifer Militello?
Yes, the very together Jennifer Militello who loves to be out talking to people and reading her poems and who has great relationships with other poets, and of course I love to read the work of other poets, but that’s a sort of private experience. So yes, there does have to be a persona Jennifer Militello. And I do try to get along with her as much as I can. [Laughs] But she’s not my favorite me. So I do it. It’s part of the deal. And it’s okay, because I believe in poetry as an important thing in the world.
You teach in the MFA program at New England College.
What kind of advice do you give your students?
I tell them to care about the writing first. I tell them to work to be influenced, to read voraciously, to find out what poets are doing that you admire and mimic it. Not to worry about publication for a very long time. Just to work at getting better and to experiment, because often you stumble on those things that work for you. And I think the more that you move forward out of your comfort zone, the more likely you are to stumble on that thing that’s the next thing that you should be doing and that’s successful for you.